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In the foreground the Mother of God and her parents Saints Joachim and Anna stand in front of columned arches representing the architecture of the Jerusalem Temple and are shown gesturing towards Zacharias the High Priest (far right wearing a golden mitre) as their daughter steps towards his throne. Although diminutive in size she appears as a mature woman. Zacharias the High Priest stands within a tall domed baldachin which represents an altar. To the left of the scene behind Joachim and Anna are the Virgins holding lighted tapers.
The icon depicts the feast known as ‘The Presentation of the Virgin into the Temple’, which falls on 21 November, and is one of the twelve ‘Great Feasts’ of Orthodoxy and one of the five Marian ‘Great Feasts’. Its source is mainly from two apocryphal books, the Protevangelium of James and the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. The occasion depicted is the ancient Jewish custom of presenting a male or female child to a priest at the temple soon after birth. In Orthodoxy, Mary’s Presentation foreshadows the Nativity. The three year old Mary is presented by her parents Joachim and Anna into the Temple where she is received by Zacharias the High Priest. She was one of seven virgins each holding a candle and each set to spin skeins of wool of different colours. Mary was given the royal purple that would become the veil of the temple.
Mary subsequently ascends a seven-stepped stairway leading to the Holy of Holies – the centre of the Jersualem Temple that signified Eden - where she is ‘fed by angels’. Gregory Palamas, the great 14th century hesychast, interpreted these events in terms of Mary’s transformation into a being capable of receiving the divine Word:
Therefore, the High Priest, seeing that this child, more than anyone else, had divine grace within Her, wished to set Her within the Holy of Holies. He convinced everyone present to welcome this, since God had advanced it and approved it. Through His angel, God assisted the Virgin and sent Her mystical food, with which She was strengthened in nature, while in body She was brought to maturity and was made purer and more exalted than the angels, having the Heavenly spirits as servants.
In our icon the seven steps and the angel feeding Mary are not shown although in most versions they are. Yet the baldachin (the iconic way of rendering the Holy of Holies) in the top-right of the panel, painted in the golden sky with an ethereal transparency, indicates that the artist was aware of the associations between the Holy of Holies and paradise, as well as its significance in the narrative of this event.
The lamp-bearing virgins who accompany her to the Temple at Joachim’s request, as stated above in the Protoevanglium of James are also shown. The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew states that
[…] when she [Mary] was three years old, she walked with a step so mature, she spoke so perfectly, and spent her time so assiduously in the praises of God, that all were astonished at her, and wondered; and she was not reckoned a young infant, but as it were a grown-up person of thirty years old. (6:1)
For this reason she is represented in icons of this subject not as a child but as a miniature adult to indicate that the fullness of grace and virtue already resides within her.
The style of the current version suggest that it was painted in the 18th century. The vivid colours, the style of the faces and the manner of rendering the composition suggest it was painted on a Greek island, perhaps on Lesbos – famous for being the home of the great ancient poet Sappho. A comparable work dated to the 18th century and originally painted for the Church of St Antony in Trigonas on Lesbos is comparable in terms of arrangement. In addition, the faces of icons painted on Lesbos generally have similar characteristics to our icon – the round lines delineating features with joyful expressions. This is notable when we compare a detail of the Virgins holding candles with a detail of angels from a Nativity painted on Lesbos in the 18th century for the Church of St Barbara in Pamphila (fig. b).